Subj: Blaze Roars near Nuclear
Site in Washington State
Date: 6/29/00 5:40:07 AM Pacific Daylight Time
Blaze Roars in Washington State
June 29, 2000; 7:01 a.m. EDT
RICHLAND, Wash. A huge wildfire that roared across the Hanford
nuclear reservation was burning out of control early Thursday in the
arid sagebrush country of southern Washington. At least 25 homes had
been destroyed and thousands of people were urged to evacuate.
The fire exploded late Wednesday, doubling in size to 100,000 acres as
it closed highways and briefly threatened a Hanford building holding
radioactive waste. It later jumped the Yakima River and began burning
homes near Benton City, about 10 miles west of Richland.
"It looks like the sky is on fire. It looks like hell. It's scary," said
Betty Upington of Richland, where some people were also asked to
evacuate. There were no confirmed reports of injuries from the second
wildfire this year to threaten one of the nation's premier nuclear
Authorities have asked 7,000 people to leave the communities of West
Richland and Benton City, just south of the sprawling reservation.
"It's like a ghost town," said Amanda Meredith, 20, of Benton City. "I
believe my house is already burned down."
The Red Cross set up shelters in nearby Kennewick and Gov. Gary Locke
declared a state of emergency in Benton County, activating the National
Guard to assist in the evacuations.
The flames, fueled by 100-degree temperatures and winds gusting to 30
mph, overwhelmed about 350 firefighters Wednesday. About 600 more from
across the region were expected to arrive soon, aided by airplanes and
helicopters from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The fire was sparked by a fatal car wreck on Tuesday and has burned
sagebrush that makes up most of the 560-square-mile reservation. For a
time, it threatened buildings at the site which contains the nation's
largest volume of nuclear waste.
Hanford was established as part of the secret Manhattan Project to build
an atomic bomb during World War II. Today, its mission is cleaning up
radioactive and hazardous waste created during 40 years of plutonium
production for the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Smoke sent two workers to a hospital for treatment Wednesday, said
Michael Turner, spokesman for Fluor Hanford, a reservation contractor.
About 1,700 Hanford employees were either sent home Wednesday or told
not to report for work.
Earlier Wednesday, the Energy Department issued an emergency declaration
as flamed neared a laboratory where nuclear and hazardous waste samples
are stored, said Michael Minette of the Hanford Joint Information
Center. Winds later pushed the flames away.
Energy Department officials said there were no known waste releases.
An anti-nuclear group warned that the fire could burn radioactive soils
and spew contaminated particles into the air.
"We urge state officials to independently monitor to protect the public
and firefighters from the hazards of airborne radioactive contaminated
particles," said Gerald Pollet, director of Heart of America Northwest.
Earlier this month, the federal government warned that
radioactive-contaminated soil from the Los Alamos National Laboratory
could flush into the Rio Grande River after a fire raced through the New
The fire season across the country is already the worst since 1996,
according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho. More than
48,000 fires have burned 1.3 million acres.
President Clinton and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson have offered any
federal assistance needed in fighting the Hanford blaze, said Keith
Klein, manager of the Hanford site.